What more could you want on a lovely summer’s night than to descend into a dark room full of people fighting, abusing each other, and hitting every type of drug under the sun? Does this sound like your idea of hell … or perhaps just another weekend retreat at the family cabin?
Well, if you have a life list centered on seeing all of the classics of American theater, going to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is exactly the right plan for a summer evening, given that after spending three hours listening to people talk about fog and heroin and madness, there’s a profound relief in knowing you’ll be going out into a moist, gentle twilight. And despite having some twenty plus years of theater-going under my belt, I can’t remember even having the opportunity to watch it before. It’s no surprise, really, given its dour nature (as Carmen says in Curtains: “I put on The Ice Man Cometh and nobody cameth!”) it’s not the kind of thing to attract the after-work hordes: so I knew that when a West End revival came along, with a money cast (i.e. David Suchet, so excellent in All My Sons, hoorah!), it was time for me to go, depressive topic be damned.
I really didn’t know too much about this show before I went (something about the mom being not quite right and it being quasi-autobiographical), so there was a lot of suspense for me in watching it play out. The setting is a dreary New England summer house, circa 1910 or so: there are cars (and streetcars) and telephones, so the feeling is of pre-war near modernity, with the whisper of the Victorian era in the air. The American “stories” of “raising yourself by the bootstraps” are here, as well as an immigrant theme (so different to hear after six years of nearly-constant British theater!); there’s also the great American fault of shameful venality. These are timeless themes, but the era is fixed as one in which certain health problems cannot be cured, and certain … other problems … are not really acknowledged. This is what the play dances around: the mom (Laurie Metcalf) has not been well, but what is the cause of her illness? And why is her family worried that she will fall prey to it again?
This might be a small mystery, but it sets the stage for a tug of war between the dad (David Suchet) and his two sons, both of whom are seen as failures by their parents. The eldest is a failed actor, the pale shadow of his father’s success; the other seems to be a generally useless occasional writer (and seems like the O’Neill stand-in). As the play goes on, you can see that all three of the men seem to hate each other to the core; yet, in that repulsive way that families have, they also love each other and are tightly bound to each other. But do they hate more than they love? This leads to the ultimate mystery, as each of the men (and even mom) become more and more abusive: why to these people spend time with each other at all? Yet unlike many of the plays I’ve seen recently where I felt trapped in a party with a bunch of horrible people I couldn’t wait to escape (Ecstasy, Chicken Soup with Barley), the rifts revealed in this family were so bloody and gaping I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It reminded me of Ibsen, where the secrets in the relationships are slowly revealed to the audience’s breathless horror. Really, I just loved it, and the ending line was a diamond ripping silk. Aaaaahhhh. And we escaped.
While both of the sons seem perfect in their roles, I had some questions about both Suchet and Metcalf. First, overall, the accents: would Americans of 1910 really have sounded just like they do on TV today? I’d expect that when angry the father (James) might have slipped into a tiny bit of a brogue, but he never sounded like anything other than a clipped accent, non-determinate American: not even clearly a New Englander, or a New Yorker, but sort of a mid-Western/California type. It’s exactly how he sounded in All My Sons, but I don’t think it felt right for the era: it was David Suchet, but, well, okay, it’s David Suchet in the role of James the dad, and he was still good to watch even if he never succeeded in leaving himself behind.
Metcalf, also, seemed terribly modern despite her hair and lace cape, and was occasionally too … buttery? I guess I wanted a bit more of a Southern belle or something, a reflection in her acting of the convent in which the character had grown up. At the beginning I found her too stiff; when she was slipping, her tones were robotic; but, ultimately, as she went down the rabbit hole, she took me right with her and I wasn’t watching Laurie Metcalf, I was watching a beloved mother collapsing in front of a son who loved her dearly and was bleeding with sorrow about his inability to keep her from sliding away from him. I saw in these horrible, messed up people a universal reflection of every unhappy family, and certainly of the unhappy family I had been a part of; and I was completely bought into the play and into the text. A Long Day’s Journey it was called but when it started moving into that eternal night I could no more walk way from it then any of these people could walk away from each other. I was entranced. In the end, I agreed, this is truly a classic play, and I was glad to see it, thrilled with the truth of its writing, yet just a tiny bit grateful when its ending came. There was no release for this miserable family, but they gave me wings to soar, out into a summer twilight of quiet London streets, grateful for the life that had let me see such a great play done so well.
(This review is for a performance seen on Thursday, Ugust 9th, 2012. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues at the Apollo through August 18th. There are many deals available.)